Clear-Eyed Futures: An Introduction

One of the challenges with writing and speaking about the sort of troubled future I believe we face is that it’s so easy to focus on the negative aspects of that future and bog down in examining the hefty ecological bills coming due. Granted, I think that’s necessary to a large degree; not so we can wallow in the collective pain to come (and already well arrived), but to be honest and clear-eyed about a future that is too rarely talked about in honest and clear-eyed terms. Our cultural narratives still skew far too heavily toward ones of unerring technological progress solving our (so often technology-created) problems, or of dystopian futures in which humanity is being run roughshod over by out of control corporations, governments, or technologies. They far too rarely turn an eye to the messy middle ground in which technology provides ever-diminishing returns, corporations and governments falter and crumble under their cascading vulnerabilities built on complexity and corruption, ecological support systems weaken under the crushing weight of widespread pollution and abuse, and human economies and political systems break down under the increasing strains of these consequences. Enumerating these consequences and understanding their current and future impacts is a key element to understanding the state of our world, how we got here, and why we’re going to continue to suffer the consequences of our numerous and ongoing terrible collective decisions.

As the harsh realities of climate change and ecological destruction make themselves ever more clear, works of science fiction seem to be more commonly integrating these consequences into their visions of the future. Yet it seems to me that they still too often fall into the trap of believing these consequences are answerable by humans, either through new technologies that mitigate the repercussions of our immensely dumb ways of living or through draconian technological and cultural responses that layer levels of human control over the troubled climate and environment—often in disturbing ways—as a response to the blowback from our individual and collective actions. These, however, strike me as flawed and mistaken responses to the troubled times ahead, and guilty of once again perpetuating the myth that we humans are ultimately in control of this planet and its natural systems. We aren’t, and every passing year makes that more and more clear.

The particular predicament facing us is that we have no effective, broad-reaching, blanket responses available to take that will wriggle us out of the very deep and very tight ecological hole that we’ve dug ourselves into. What we face instead is the fractal chaos of localized and individual responses—and, unfortunately, many of those responses are going to be limited in their effectiveness and makeshift in their nature. Mind you, it’s not that there are no large scale responses available to us today, but the ability of such large scale responses to mitigate the predicaments we face are far overblown—and, on top of that, there is absolutely no indication that we have a current willingness to make the individual changes in behavior necessary to create a strong enough political movement and social mobilization to implement those large scale responses that are available to us. In other words, our future is almost certainly one of muddling through.

The necessary response, though, is very straightforward: simplification. We need simpler lives, lived with less energy, using less resources, amassing less stuff, and distracting ourselves with less stimulation. We need to shed complexity and let go of all the things that, in the end, we will be unable to hang on to. We need to stop drowning under the weight of ridiculous expectations. We need to stop allowing ourselves to grow miserable at the behest of cultural beliefs that are proving more dysfunctional and unrealistic which each new thousand-year storm, each new collapsing ice sheet, each new economic convulsion, and each new political upheaval. We need to be honest about the future we face and what it means for the lives we currently lead and the lives we will have to lead.

Only by being honest with ourselves about the future we face and the ways it will impact our lives whether we want it to or not will we be able to make the changes necessary in our own ways of living to create effective responses to the decline we are already experiencing—as well as to have any hope of building social and political movements that may yet create some effective large-scale responses to our troubled future, even if those responses are limited in their ability to mitigate our predicament. We have to get away from the false narratives of technological salvation and apocalyptic collapse and instead face honestly the chaotic future of dysfunction and variable levels of localized decline and collapse that we continue to make for ourselves.

I have been attempting those changes in my own life over the past several years, with varying levels of success and failure. I detailed some of those in my former blog, Of The Hands, and it’s likely I’ll be writing about that at times in this blog, as well. However, personal change is not the only response available to us, and part of the purpose of Figuration Press is to take a step out into the broader world in an effort to create new narratives that might help others to better understand the likely shapes of our future, break out of dysfunctional and long-past-expired cultural narratives, see the world with fresh eyes, and begin making the changes necessary to grapple with a future that is not going to provide us with the sort of luxury, comfort, and ease—in other words, the sort of supposed progress—that is so often promised. I want to explore the future facing us in ways that it is too rarely explored and I want to help spread and perpetuate ideas as to how we can confront that future in the best ways possible.

Into the Ruins is Figuration Press’s first project and the initial foray toward accomplishing that goal. It’s the first deindustrial science fiction magazine that I’m aware of and is dedicated to publishing visions of the future in which decline and collapse are taken as inevitable fact, technological progress is a path of diminishing returns incapable of solving the myriad problems and predicaments we face, and where both techno-utopian and apocalyptic fantasies are strictly forbidden. It can be a tough line to walk at times, and I still read a number of dystopian stories that cannot seem to move away from the idea that humans control the future (not to mention stories featuring space adventure, asteroid mining, and magical new sources of immense energy). This fantasy of human control seems to be one of the hardest knee-jerk impulses to eliminate when thinking about the future. The simple reality is that we are far less in control than we think, and the grander the scale you move to, the more encompassing that fact becomes.

As we continue to move farther into the rough consequences of abusing our only home—you know, that miraculous living planet that is the only thing standing between being alive and being annihilated—I suspect that fantasy of human control will become less and less tenable as the natural world refuses to cooperate with our childish fantasies of omnipotence and instead happily traverses surprising and unforeseen paths—all while we stand in the background demanding it come home right this instant. I hope this is the case, anyway, because it’s that fantasy of human control that not only makes it a challenge at times to find great stories for Into the Ruins, but that also leaves us disastrously clinging to ways of life that cannot and will not go on.

This is the crux of the task before us. We need to let go of actual and imagined lives the natural world is increasingly not going to let us live. We need to let go of the desperate desires for unnecessary wealth and abundance, for the sort of luxury and comfort the consequences of which are swiftly damning our future selves and future generations to far less comfort than we might otherwise have. We need to give up the death grip and instead turn willingly and thoughtfully to a future of less—before that future smacks us upside the head and drags us unwillingly into the future that’s waiting regardless of our choice today whether or not to face it.

It’s hard, though, to turn away from a future you know—no matter how dysfunctional and destructive it may be—if you’re only turning toward an unknown and frightening void. Sure, just such a turn has been the basis for a good many enjoyable adventures throughout history, but that hardly removes the worry. So here again, the matter of new narratives, new stories, and new possibilities become crucial to our living better. And here again, I turn to the purpose of Figuration Press, Into the Ruins, and other projects this publication house will likely be tackling in the future. Among those projects is this blog, Litterfall.

A number of ideas and inspirations have been battling for space within my brain of late, stimulated by the work of writing for, editing, and publishing Into the Ruins, as well as by a variety of changes in my own life. I want an outlet for those ideas, and I want as well a weekly rapport with those of you out there who are interested in different ways of living and who are troubled by the course of our current society. Similarly, I want a gathering place that can act as a seed bed for new projects for Figuration Press and for new narratives about how we best can live in this world. This desire is where the “Litterfall” name for this blog and the attendant obvious metaphor comes from. I want this to serve as a place of detritus, so to speak—as a bit of ground littered with ideas, insights, narratives, and other bits of organic material that could help build new ways of living and thinking that are rooted in ecological contexts, love of the natural world, and care for this planet and its community of species, human and otherwise. I want it to be busy and diverse, with a wide variety of thoughts and perspectives.

I don’t plan to shy away from speaking about our problems and enumerating the issues facing us, including with a primer post next week that lays out some of the basic predicaments we will have to deal with as we continue to suffer decline. However, I want this to be a conversation that comes back regularly to some of the ways we can change our lives and create new and appealing stories for how to live in this world. The dirty secret of decline—the fact that gets too little discussion—is how much better our lives can be when we cut out excess energy, stuff, and stimulation. I’m as guilty of anyone of losing focus of that fact, but I’ve lived it so many times now, in so many ways, that I know without question that I can speak to the joys of living with less and the benefits of scaling back our lives. There is an incredible world out there that modern industrial civilization does everything in its power to obscure, hide, denigrate, and dismiss. Coming home to it is a powerfully joyous experience.

I’ll be talking about that homecoming in future posts. I’ll be talking about the predicaments of our time, the reasons we’ll have to make do with less, and the importance of personal change both at the individual and societal level. I’ll be talking about farming, homesteading, exposure to the natural world, and physical labor. I’ll be talking about specific issues, too, such as the local food movement—which I plan to provide some celebration and criticism of in the months ahead. I may also share the occasional bit of fiction with you, set in the troubled times ahead.

I’ll be doing all this right here, every week, with new posts coming each Monday evening. We’ll have a conversation about the state of the world, the state of ourselves, and how we can live better. As Figuration Press continues to engage in new projects, I’ll also share those with you and, I hope, receive feedback about what kind of projects you think will help you see the world in new ways. We’ll start next week with talk of energy, resources, and empire, and then go from there. In the meantime, I’ll encourage you to sign up for the Figuration Press News & Announcements email list, to subscribe to new Litterfall blog posts by email, and to follow our Facebook page (if you suffer social media), all via forms and links on the right hand side of this page. Finally, I hope to have a conversation with all of you—so consider a comment below if you’re so moved.

Until next week.

8 Comments

  1. Joel,
    I found you through the ADR. I like the practical ‘we are gonna get spanked, but we can choose the switch’ tone of this first post. I look forward to reading more and hopefully having something to add to the conversation. Thanks for starting this!

    • Thanks, Jason! If you liked that element, I suspect you’ll enjoy next Monday’s post, which is going to take that idea a bit more into detail. Nothing the Archdruid hasn’t said, but hopefully enjoyably said regardless. It’s likely to be an overlying theme of the blog, as well. I think it’s helpful to boil it down to something so simple and then shift the focus to getting to work—at least, for those who get that we do actually need to change the way we live.

  2. Nice beginning, Joel!
    You state the issues very clearly, and yes, it’s really hard to frame a middle-ground response. Not hopeless/helplessness nor technotopian, but one that looks more toward how our grandparents survived the Depression, Dust Bowl, and the other calamities that struck so often. This one will be big, and probably no place to migrate to (at least not in the long run), but still it’s happening relatively slowly and piecemeal, so those of us with resources can still reach out. I’m sitting here in near-100 degree temps, seeing the floods in Louisiana, and knowing we’ve already tipped climate change past the point of avoiding consequences. And yet, I’m still gonna shade my plants and feed the chickens frozen berries, watermelon and corn (cools them when they’re too dumb to drink water) and I’ll look for the most resilient for next year. One season at a time, we have to respond to Nature since we’ve ignored her for too long. But as you say, simplifying brings great joy as well – the miracles of Nature are still all around and can take my breath away at a moment. So congrats on the new blog, and I hope we can get a conversation going!

    • Hi Cathy,

      It’s been funny looking at the new feed in recent days and seeing a run of top stories about a thousand year flood in Louisiana, out of control wildfires in California causing the evacuation of nearly 100,000 residents, and various stories about Donald Trump’s run for president. Five or ten years ago, that would have basically looked like a solid background scroll in a dystopian tale establishing the chaotic state of a world reeling from climate change and political upheaval and a nice primer to get the audience thinking, “God, what if the world actually looked like that?”

      Now it’s just our reality.

      Anyone who says consequences aren’t biting us hard on the behind and the chickens aren’t coming home to roost clearly is avoiding the actual state of the world, and it still sometimes amazes me just how much the predictions of the past have started to come very true. Granted, it’s in their own unique ways, but that’s always the way reality works against prediction.

      And the best thing we still can do is get to work, just like you say. There’s no better or effective response. I forget that far too often, but I keep trying to remember.

      Apropos that, yesterday I picked up two boxes of tomatoes and two boxes of nectarines, to go along with the big bag of pears I got from friends a few days ago. I’ll be canning tomato sauce, nectarine lime jam, and pear ginger jam over the next few days. Just got to keep trucking along, take what life brings, and do the work that needs to be done.

      P.S. Lucky chickens!

  3. Hi Joel –
    Been awaiting a new blog from you since the demise of ‘Of The Hands’ and am pleased to witness your new direction with the arrival of ‘Into The Ruins’ and this blog.
    Hopefully, as an old guy I’ll be able to offer some insights now and then since I was born in the middle of the ‘Great Depression’ and grew into childhood during a time when the demands of that economic collapse and WW II required a large degree of self-sufficiency on the part of my family and our neighbors.
    Cheers –
    Martin

    • Thank you, Martin! It’s good to see you here. I always did enjoy our comment conversations back at Of The Hands, and am happy to have finally got a new blog going for you (and others) to peruse.

      I definitely hope you’ll chime in with your own experience. I still wish I had spoken to my grandparents more about their experiences from the Great Depression and WWII before they died. I didn’t realize at the time how much I would come to value that knowledge and experience.

      That feels like one of the more heartbreaking themes of our society at this point.

  4. Hi again Joel. This is great to have your blog to add to ADR’s insights. I too am looking forward to some more thoughtful discourse from our growing catabolic collapse surfer community.

    May we surf the chaos with all the grace and balance we can muster!

    Annette Simard

    • Thanks, Annette! I don’t know near as much as JMG–particularly about history–but I hope it proves a worthy companion piece with some helpful personal insights into the predicaments of our time.

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